Meet Anna Rozenfeld

Love to Death!

Anna and I met via email, when she inquired about an artwork for a presentation about contemporary artist who use the Yiddish language in their work. In my artwork, I integrated Yiddish several times, to draw a lost connection to my grandparents' culture. For Anna, Yiddish is a living and daily language. Naturally, when I began thinking about making jewelry in Yiddish, I reached out to her for insight. 

Yael Kanarek: Where did you grow up and what is life in Warsaw like?

Anna Rozenfeld: I was born in Cieszyn (in the south of Poland), I spent the first years of my childhood in Warsaw, and afterwards I lived in different European countries. I left for Germany with my parents, and I spent a few years of my life there, for a while I also lived in Austria and France. I travelled a lot.

Having been exposed to many cultures and many languages, without settling down anywhere for good, I had to build a home within my soul and in what I am doing. I follow the sound of the wind. I feel closer to nomads, then to those who settle down. In the German language there are two words that convey this meaning: be-sitzen and er-fahren. Besitzen means to possess, but it also includes the word sitzen – to sit down and erfahren means to experience and explore and includes the word fahren – to move. 

It has been ten years since I returned for the second time to Warsaw, but my suitcase is always packed and I have a sense of temporary circumstances.

On the surface Warsaw today is a cosmopolitan city full of life and art just like in other European cities, but you can not erase its tragic history, the traces of the past are visible everywhere. Warsaw emerged from ashes like the legendary Phoenix. You can often feel a strange sensation that you can hear a shouting silence in the places where Jews used to live. In reaction to it there is revival of Jewish life – children can go to a Jewish school, there is an active Jewish community. People are becoming more and more aware of the culture that almost perished and maybe this explains the increasing interest in the Yiddish culture and life.

YK: For me Yiddish is the language of my deceased grandparents. How did you come to have such a love affair with the language?

AR: It is difficult to say when my love affair with Yiddish started. Even as a child I listened to Yiddish songs, my mother took me to the Jewish theatre and I picked up some words, often not knowing what they really meant. The sound of that language felt familiar to me, it touched me deeply. As a teenager, going through a stage of a conscious discovering of my Jewish identity, I got to know the Hebrew alphabet. At first, I started learning Hebrew on my own, but I quickly realized that once I got to know Hebrew letters, it was Yiddish that caught my heart and ever since then, I “swallowed” Yiddish books and read Yiddish poetry with great admiration.  

A world of magnificent literature opened up for me and captivated me throughly. A world that becomes accessible once you get to know the language. I quickly realized how important it was not to let that language perish and I had a feeling of personal responsibility for it. Therefore I started to search for connections with people who spoke Yiddish and who shared that passion. 

Later on, in the process of discovering Yiddish on my own, I felt compelled to deepen my knowledge academically and also, translate poems. The poetry of Rajzel Żychlińsky was a book that initiated my love affair with translation of Yiddish poetry. 

Academically, while studying at the Fine Arts Academy, I also pursued my interests studying Yiddish at the Vienna University, and afterwards in Warsaw. One of the turning points in my life was joining the actors’ group at the Jewish Theatre in Warsaw, the place that I had had a lot of sentiment for since my childhood, and meeting professor Michał Friedman who was a Yiddish literature expert and interpreter, responsible for coaching actors. 

During one of the Yiddish courses organized by Shalom Foundation in Śródborów near Warsaw, I got to know wonderful professors from around the world, deeply involved in cultivating the Yiddish heritage. It inspired me and a few of my friends to start up on our own project in Poland. We named it “Yidish lebt” (“Yiddish is alive”) – as we deeply believe that Yiddish can be present at our daily lives today.

Moreover, I conducted programs in Yiddish, called “Naye Khvalyes” (“New Waves”) broadcast by the Polish Radio. That experience settled me down in the world of Yiddish and let me enter the Yiddishland for good. Writing e-mails in Yiddish, interviewing people and making phone calls in Yiddish gave me quite a different perspective of that language. It became the tool of my everyday communication. It was not dead for me.

Today, I am involved in conducting numerous workshops for children and youth, artistic projects and lectures, as well as carrying on my own research and translating pieces of literature. My personal goal is to actively use Yiddish and make it a language of daily creative expression in today’s world, rather than just proclaim its importance. 

YK: Celia Dropkin's poem "To A Young Poet" has such large emotions. I really enjoyed reciting during the presentation of the "Mother Tongue" collection at the LABA 14Y in New York. You mentioned that it had particular meaning for you. Can you elaborate? 

AR: For the quotation on my necklace I chose the words: “libn bizn toyt!” (“love to death!”) that come from the poem “tsu a yunger dikhterin” (“To a Young Poet”), written by Celia Dropkin, a Yiddish author of bold erotic poetry, from the beginning of the 20th century. Her poetry appeals to me emotionally and it once inspired me, together with another Yiddishist, to prepare a program based on her work. It included the above poem. On many levels it is reminiscent of Rilkean poems. It has the same notion of dedicating all of yourself for the sake of the creative expression. In the “Letters to a Young Poet” Rilke wrote: “Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself.” Whereas, Celia Dropkin says: “You must love without reason or pride; you must love to death. Then, when you recognize the death in love, write love poems.”

I share Celia Dropkin’s belief in passionate and overwhelming love as the driving force of both the artistic expression and of the personal world of emotions. Love and death are the essence of life. The motif can be perceived on many levels – to love despite and against death or to lose yourself to love, or to love till death. Thus, the necklace is my talisman, my personal reminder of the motto that is crucial in my life. It has a special hidden sense for me, one that I do not want to reveal fully. But one thing I can say – people who see me wearing it and express a desire to have one like that on their own – seem to belong to the same spiritual world, at least in my perception. Thus, I’m very attentive to people’s reactions. 

Some people admire just the form of it, whereas others, those who are familiar with the Hebrew alphabet, or better yet, know Yiddish and therefore have the ability to understand the deeper meaning of these words, open up to me.

The necklace is so delicate, it has become a part of my body, and it moves as I move. Ever since I put it on, I haven’t taken it off. I wear it even when I sleep. Thus, it accompanies me in every aspect of my life. 

When I’m on stage, it only shines from afar, it’s intriguing but the letters cannot be recognized. But when somebody approaches me and is able to see it clearly, a kind of an intimate contact develops between us.

Therefore, my necklace is not just an ornament. It sparks up a conversation, with a variety of interpretations and perspectives, a conversation goes into the depth of the essence of humanity.

Yael Kanarek